Got illegal immigrants? The nation's dairy industry does, and it wouldn't last long without them.
Now that Wisconsin's Paul Ryan has been picked by Mitt Romney for the Republican ticket, let's pour ourselves a glass of milk and have a discussion that we've been none too eager to have.
We need to talk about immigration not as an emotional issue but as an economic one. Like other dairy states — i.e., California, New York, Vermont — Wisconsin depends heavily on the dairy industry. And the industry depends heavily on illegal immigrant labor. It's that simple.
The same goes for other outdoor industries such as farming, ranching and landscaping. If it's a job where you work with your hands and where you work outside, you're going to find a lot of foreign workers doing it.
You can bet that Ryan understands this reality, and that it's one reason he has long supported efforts in Congress to provide a more stable workforce for these kinds of industries. This includes the AgJobs bill, which was put together by a bipartisan group of lawmakers and would have legalized about 500,000 farm workers. Ryan was a co-sponsor of every version of that legislation in four consecutive Congresses.
"I believe there was a certain pragmatism at work," Craig J. Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, told me. "There was a serious constituent issue and economic issue in his district. The dairy industry in his district produces over $100 million annually in milk and dairy products. Its (the district's) nurseries and greenhouses grow almost $45 million in trees, shrubs, and plants."
Regelbrugge, who is also vice president of government relations for the American Nursery & Landscape Association, all but admits that these industries would falter without undocumented workers.
"Most of the labor force sustaining these industries wasn't born in America and has papers that look better than they really are," he said. "They are pretty much the only ones applying for a job that gives them the privilege to have their arm well past the elbow inside Elsie the Cow at 3 a.m. when she goes into labor."
Americans talk a great deal about immigration, but we usually talk about it in the wrong way. We're more likely to argue over the impact of immigrants on the culture — i.e., complain about people speaking Spanish at the supermarket or the post office — while not admitting the positive impact of immigrants on the economy.
It's part of the conundrum that Republicans face this week in Tampa at their convention. They can't win without Hispanics. Yet they can't get Hispanics to vote for them until they learn how to talk about immigration in a way that isn't offensive. And they can't do that until they stop harping on how immigrants impact the culture and start talking about how immigrants — even the illegal kind — impact the economy.
This is where Ryan comes in. He could help unlock this debate, and he could help his party stay afloat. And in the process, he could help the rest of us come to grips with basic realities that we have been reluctant to confront.
A few years ago, I was guest hosting a radio show in San Diego when I got a call from a city slicker who must have thought that milk comes from cartons in the supermarket. As one who grew up in the farm country of Central California, I know that some of our hardest and dirtiest jobs would not get done in a world with no illegal immigrants.